Video inaccurately claims that cancelled Yale-NUS programme was designed to teach students how to protest illegally

Following the cancellation of the Yale-National University of Singapore College of Liberal Arts (Yale-NUS College) programme titled ‘Dissent and Resistance in Singapore’ led by renowned local playwright Alfian Sa’at, the Facebook page Singapore Matters (SM) released a video to express their thoughts on the programme.

We note here that Singapore Matters is a pro-establishment Facebook page and posts mainly on Singapore affairs, praising the figures in the establishment and demonising opposition figures and civil activists.

Specifically, the video claimed that the programme was “aimed at advocating civil disobedience, i.e breaking the law to advocate a political cause” and that “the class made no distinction between peaceful and legal resistance and the violent resistance that is now being seen in Hong Kong”.

Screengrab from video by Singapore Matters.

However, Alfian Sa’at had clarified in a Facebook post that the programme isn’t designed to train students on how to stage public protests. He wrote, “is not designed to train students ‘to stage protests in public’. Any comparisons with what is happening in Hong Kong right now is off the mark.”

Mr Sa’at explained in his post that the programme is “designed to guide students to think about dissent in Singapore. What is a dissident? Why does the media persist in labelling certain individuals or groups as ‘troublemakers’? Who are they making trouble for?”

He elaborated, “One of the best ways to get these insights is to meet some so-called dissidents face to face. To give the students unfiltered access. So that they can ask questions.”

Comparing the programme structure shared by Mr Sa’at on his Facebook post to SM’s video, we can see that what SM’s claims about the programme activities are inaccurate. The video claimed that “the class was going to teach students how to make placards, devise militant tactics aimed at challenging the law, and cause disruption to advocate one’s point of view.”

While there is a ‘Sign-making workshop’ as part of the programme, other activities aren’t as hostile as SM made them out to be. For example, one activity involved a visit to Speaker’s Corner to map out the topography of control and surveillance in the area, and later a discussion with various activists on civil disobedience versus accommodationist tactics, for example, pragmatic resistance.

That’s a far cry from teaching students how to ‘devise militant tactics’, don’t you think?

The SM video also said that “The class made no distinction between peaceful and legal resistance and the violent resistance that is now being seen in Hong Kong” adding that “it glorifies illegal protests, even violent ones”.

Again, this is baseless. Other activities outlined by Mr Sa’at were a workshop on activism by student organisation based in Yale-NUS, a talk by artists on artistic approaches in the public sphere, a presentation on the history of censorship in Singapore and two documentary screenings.

The first documentary is about Hong Kong’s civil rights activist Joshua Wong titled “Joshua: Teenager vs Superpower”. The second is “1987: Untracing the Conspiracy’, which is about those who were detained under the Internal Security Act in 1987 in Singapore.

The programme also includes a discussion on film and activism or film as activism. I’d argue that screening documentaries about an activist and the unsavoury side of Singapore history do not constitute ‘glorifying illegal protests’.

In a Facebook post on Sunday, journalist and activist Kirsten Han responded that the video “makes claims about the programme and line-up of activities that are untrue”. She then questioned the point of releasing such a video when the event has already been cancelled.

On Monday (16 September), she noted on Facebook that another page, Fabrications about the PAP, repeated those same claims made in the video.

There was also another page, FActually Singapore which used a clip from a speech she gave in 2016 to suggest that she wants Singapore to be like Hong Kong as it is today.

Factually Singapore wrote: “Kirsten Han does not hide her desire for Singapore to be like Hong Kong. With people fighting the police on the street and Hong Kongers fighting Hong Kongers on the street”

Ms Han countered that the main thrust of her argument in 2016 was outlined in a blog post on Medium. In it she wrote:

“Our goal right now is not to mobilise thousands to go marching in the streets. Our goal right now is to reach out to people, to build relationships, networks, trust and solidarity. It’s easier said than done, but it’s necessary, and there’s a role for everyone. There are so many access points, so many ways for us to exercise our democratic muscle, and to encourage others to do the same.”

In her second FB post, she once again questioned the point of making the claims, saying “It’s not like a petition or campaign is needed to get the “Dissent and Resistance” programme withdrawn; it’s already cancelled. So what is the point of sharing this kind of confusing misinformation?”

Ms Han raises a good point.

Another question we have is this: given the inaccurate claims made in the video against the programme and individuals involved in it, isn’t the video considered a form of harassment? If so, what are the authorities doing about it? Will they take action if at all?

Also, given the similar inaccuracies shared by the different Facebook pages, is there a concerted effort to discredit civil activists and sow fear among the population that there is an attempt to bring the protest movements of Hong Kong to Singapore?